Lionfish, a long-popular aquarium fish native to the Indo-Pacific region, are invading both Caribbean and Atlantic waters and threatening local fish populations, they said.
Their extraordinary success has been likened to that of Burmese pythons, now eating their way through the Florida Everglades with few predators other than alligators and humans.
Native predators seem to have little effect on the numbers of lionfish, researchers say.
"When I began diving 10 years ago, lionfish were a rare and mysterious species seen deep within coral crevices in the Pacific Ocean," said Serena Hackerott, lead study author and graduate student at the University of North Carolina. "They can now been seen across the Caribbean, hovering above the reefs throughout the day and gathering in groups of up to ten or more on a single coral head."
Native reef predators such as sharks and groupers appear unable to control the population growth of red lionfish in the Caribbean, either by eating them or out-competing them for prey, the researchers said.
Human intervention may be the only solution to the problem of this highly invasive species, they said.
"Active and direct management, perhaps in the form of sustained culling, appears to be essential to curbing local lionfish abundance and efforts to promote such activities should be encouraged," the study authors wrote in the journal PLoS ONE.
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